Шалим се, лепа. Cyrillic was scribbled on the inside of the styrofoam to-go box from the best dinner we’d had in months. “Just kidding, beautiful,” it said. “I knew he was a Serb, I knew it! I saw it in his eyes,” Jovana exclaimed with with an eye roll and a laugh. The young waiter had pretended to be confused when she spoke Serbian to him and insisted he was from Prague. The flirty joke reminded her of home. We declared the restaurant our new place and promised to go back to find out what town the Serbian waiter was from.
Luka Lu is small bright restaurant in Malá Strana, an escape to a place that no longer exists. The Serbian and Bosnian waiters serve dishes from Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. But Luka Lu is proudly labeled only as Yugoslavian in celebration of the country that broke up almost 30 years ago.
Unlike the collective silence surrounding the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution and break from Russian communism, the memory of Yugoslavia is kept with pride and nostalgia. Czechs fight to forget a time in history when farmers were declared enemies of the state and the decades of food shortages and endless bread lines. Curious children who ask parents and grandparents about life under communism are often ignored. But in Luka Lu, fond memories of a prospering Yugoslavia are kept through an abundance of traditional recipes. While the Czechs ate to work, relying on thick layers of butter and oily cured meats to stay full and warm, the Yugoslavians ate to relax and enjoy.
The patterned walls and colorfully mismatched table settings immediately distinguish Luka Lu from rustic but often bland Czech taverns. The menu is also a welcome break from the local beer, meat and potatoes standard. First, rakija is ordered before anything else. The homemade liquer is simultaneously fruity and strong, and the small glass is slowly enjoyed throughout the meal. For Serbians, it is not only an apertif, but a memory from childhood when it was used to clean scrapes and soothe sore throats. Then, thick, fluffy bread is served with spicy ayvar and creamy kajmak. The shopska salad is cool and crunchy, generously topped with shredded sirene cheese and the barbecued meats are warmly seasoned with fragrant spices. Each dish is a small piece of home, and the vibrant variety celebrates each country from Yugoslavia. The bloody stains of the Balkan wars are temporarily overlooked – it’s what Yugoslavia used to be that counts in Luka Lu.
“Yugoslavia was the best country in the world,” a waiter named Bane said. “It’s never going to happen again.”
Bane is from a small town in Serbia, one stop away from Belgrade on the bus. He left 23 years ago and only returns for visits. For him, the Czech Republic is a better place to work, but it lacks the friendliness and openness that the ex-Yugoslavian countries have. One of the most important parts of Yugoslavian culture is teasing and making fun of each other, he said. But in the Czech Republic, these jokes are never understood.
“Everyone takes everything personally,” Bane said with a shrug. “Sometimes I think am crazy here, but when I go home I know I am OK.”
In Luka Lu, Bane and his coworkers can continue their tradition of playful hospitality. Talkative guests are offered extra glasses of rakija and short notes or smiley faces are written on to-go boxes. A Serbian girl celebrating her 21st birthday away from home was given a heaping piece of kremšnita while an old-time radio version of “Happy Birthday” played over the restaurant speakers. On the way out, sometimes the bartender will pour one last glass of bitter, herb-scented pelinkovac to wipe the taste buds clean.
Even after the kitchen is closed, no one is turned away or rushed. Lingering guests can enjoy their last sips of Macedonian house wine while the traditional Balkan music gets louder. The waiters and waitresses join the restaurant owner for a playful dance and forget about cleaning for a few minutes.
Eager to hear more about Serbia and Yugoslavia, I asked Bane question after question. He brought me another basket of bread, which I immediately slathered with the last remnants of ayvar. While my mouth was full of warm bread crust, I tried to ask a provocative question about tension and war after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Bane stopped my incoherent mumbling with a smile. “Take your food, and then we can talk about it,” he said.
Photo by Carmen J. Russo